AN INTERVIEW WITH ALLISON JOSEPH
Jennifer Merrifield: This is Jennifer Merrifield, and I’m in Vancouver with Allison Joseph, who graciously agreed to take some time away from the AWP conference to speak with us today. Allison, thank you so much for being here.
To start, your poems exhibit an interesting technique of sending us back through layers of history and culture. While looking at your own personal past, they also seem to examine our entire country’s shared past, so that as we experience aspects of you in them, we’re are also experiencing aspects of ourselves. Charles Simic has said that all good poets tend to stand apart from their literary age; they either linger in the past, advance into some imaginary future, or live in some version of the present that is altogether their own. I wonder if you could speak to that. How are your poems engaged in that ongoing literary conversation, and what do you want to say to this literary age, for or against?
Allison Joseph: It’s a difficult question. I always seek to be a representative of my age, my race, and my gender. I don’t shy away from those things, and I think anyone who is cognizant of those things will be engaged in an ongoing, sometimes battle, sometimes a dance, with history. So I can’t negate who I am, where I came from, where my parents came from. So that’s a simultaneous battle with the past, the present, and, I hope, the future. I’m scared, at times, of what the future brings, since it seems to repeat the past more often than we are willing to see or admit; but I couldn’t write poetry if I wasn’t engaged with history on some level. I was a history major, history slash English major, in college, so I’ve always had a significant feeling for desire to reconcile with love of history, whether it’s the official story, let’s put it that way, or it’s the story that’s strained through the layers of often-tacky popular culture . . . to me, that’s all history.
JM: Whenever you’re crafting your poems, I’m curious, do you consciously set out with that sense of history in mind, and try to speak to that and respond to that, or is it something that you just find yourself returning to in your work and trying to explore and re-imagine in different ways?
AJ: Both. But usually the first aspect that you mentioned, that I have almost a weight bearing down on me, that I’ve been thinking about something for a while. Very rarely do I write a poem that’s in reaction immediately to a historical circumstance or occurrence. Usually, and this may be just that I’m slow, I’m a slow thinker, which isn’t a bad thing, usually things acquire that layering that you were talking about in your question and I think about how does this fraction of my own personal history match up with this fragment of a larger cultural history? And I start to put things together, and usually that’s when the most historically significant poems come.
I wrote a poem, and it’s not yet in one of my collections, but it was an important poem for me to write because I remember seeing the film The Birth of a Nation in high school, and the fragment of my own personal history that I remembered was that they sent us home with permission slips. This was high school, you don’t get permission slips anymore in high school, but the film was so controversial, and so offensive to so many people, that the school decided that we had to have permission slips given to our parents in order to view the film. I think I probably did have my mother sign it, but I knew about the film before. But when it came time to write the poem, what came back to me was that first detail. I always need that first bit of history, or tangible thing, or thing that I remember. So the first line of the poem was “Our parents had to sign permission slips.” I needed that in order to talk about the broader cultural impact of this particular film, and what its history was. So I usually start with that little tiny thing, that small glitch, to get me into the larger picture.
JM: What were some of the difficulties you had to overcome to achieve your successes as a poet?
AJ: This is going to sound awful, but I don’t really think I had a lot of difficulties. I had a lot of lucky, fortunate things happen to me. I went to Kenyon College as an undergrad, which if you’ve ever been to Kenyon or you know of Kenyon, there’s a t-shirt they sell in the bookstore that says something to the effect of: “We wrote poetry at Kenyon the way they played football at Ohio State,” which I think is a paraphrase of E. L. Doctorow. And while I was there, I was just taking a poetry class, and the editor of The Kenyon Review at the time, a gentleman named Phillip Church, who has passed, was my instructor, and he saw the poems, I’d just submitted three poems for workshop, nothing big, and he said, “I want to publish these poems in The Kenyon Review. You will be the first undergraduate that we’ve published since Robert Lowell,” or something like that, and I thought, Oh my goodness! Me and Robert Lowell in the same sentence. Not something that happens very often.
So I was fortunate to go to a college where like every fifth person was a poet. I’m exaggerating, but it has that kind of literary history. And then I was fortunate enough to go to Indiana University, where I studied with Yusef Komunyaaka, Maura Stanton, and the teacher we now have in common, David Wojahn, and hey, those are three fabulous people to study with, and they all gave me something different. From David, I think I learned that melding of larger societal history that we’ve talking about and personal history, that those two things go together, because he does that a lot in his poetry. From Maura, I learned to say what I mean and mean what I say, because her poems are very direct and up front. They’re not confrontational at all, and it’s funny, when you meet Maura, she’s a very shy person, but she always says what she means and means what she says. And from Yusef, I learned to cherish my own cultural background, just as he does in his poems, that it wasn’t anything to negate or deny, because it wasn’t the cultural “norm” per se. So from each of those people I learned something different. So my graduate thesis became my first book, so I was really fortunate.
I don’t know if I had many obstacles, other than the obstacles we all face as poets: creating work, sending it out, it gets rejected, it gets accepted. I’ve been through all of that, but I can’t say that I’ve had significant obstacles to being a poet. I became a poet and never stopped. I think a lot of people when they are thirteen, fourteen, they love writing poetry, and they’re in love with words, and they’re word-drunk, and then slowly and surely that gets chipped away, and one of the reasons I love working with high school students is if I can catch them in that stage, I can push them towards maintaining that, whatever they do in the rest of their lives. So I don’t know if I had any significant obstacles to becoming a poet.
JM: Was there a point whenever you first really felt that you could call yourself a poet, or was it sort of a sense that you’d always felt developing and there was no delineation between that?
AJ: Yeah, well I’ve always had a sense that words were going to be utterly significant in my world, that I was not a numbers person, that I had limited artistic talent, like visual art, and that I was the kind of kid that liked to read the encyclopedia and the dictionary. And I also liked music, but I didn’t train on any particular instrument or sing in the church choir, but I liked the music of language and the rhythm of language, so it seemed very natural to me to become a poet. I often wonder, why aren’t more of you poets? Come on! And what I find is often people are poets and just don’t know it. A lot of English professors are, that are not the creative writers in the department, they still are, or they wanted to be. I think if you read something and it utterly rocks your world, wouldn’t you want to be a writer? It makes perfect sense to us, doesn’t it?
JM: We were just speaking a little bit about subject, and what you learned from your teachers at Indiana, and you’ve said Gwendolyn Brooks has had a significant impact on your writing, and that she taught you it’s okay to write about what’s close to home. Brooks not only opened the door on new subject matter, she also revitalized form and turned Shakespeare’s high-minded sonnet into a welcome mat for the disenfranchised. Can you talk a bit about your own experiences with prosody, how you approach forms and its variance in your own writing, and what makes this appropriation so compelling to you as a reader?
AJ: For a long time I was strictly someone who wrote in free verse, and then my father passed away and I tried to write about the experience of losing him, and the tension, the family arguments, all of that, and I wasn’t successful, wasn’t successful to the point where the poems, I couldn’t even write a draft. And this puzzled me because I’d written about my mother’s death in my first book, and those poems were all in free verse, and I thought: Why isn’t my standard page-and-a-half free-verse narrative, why is it not working? And then maybe a year or two later, I was leading a workshop, back at Kenyon, and a line came to me: “His credit cards were in a plastic case.” And that I noticed, I noticed that it was a ten-syllable line and it scanned “his credit cards were in a plastic case,” and I thought, thirteen more lines to go.
So I’d always studied and investigated things like the sonnet, but until that moment I didn’t realize what sort of tools they could be for me. And I ended up writing a sonnet sequence about my father and his relationship to our family, and the only way I could have written that sequence of poems, many of which were published in a magazine that unfortunately no longer exists, but The Formalist, many of them appeared in The Formalist. And it was odd because it wasn’t a journal that I thought I’d ever appear in because it seemed a very stiff and upper-crust kind of journal, but it wasn’t. It turned out that they were welcoming to everything that was formal in its prosody, pretty much, and then I started thinking of the various containers that forms offers us, and how I could use those containers. I just didn’t see before how those particular shapes—because that’s what they are if you think about them—how they were relevant for me. But it was ultimately a freeing discovery, just learning, okay, if I can get this fourteen-line box and pack it with all my grief and all the things I think I can’t handle, I can go on to writing another fourteen-line box.
And now it’s funny, I think I teach more prosody than I ever expected to. We have at my university a graduate course called “Forms of Poetry,” which you have leeway in what you want to teach, but I always teach it as a prosody and fixed-forms class, and we also have that for our undergraduates, I always teach that as a prosody and fixed-forms class. Just because now that I know the shapes, it’s easy to sort of pass them on. There’s something archetypal about the shapes. Once you infiltrate them into your own consciousness, it’s very easy to pass them on, and it’s kind of an inheritance. Now I would say that I write probably half in free verse, half in fixed forms. It just became natural, eventually.
The education is difficult, and I see this when I teach the class, students are used to writing a certain way, and they associate rhyme with sing-songy greeting-card kind of verse, because that’s a lot of what people get exposed to, and initially . . . their line is too tightly metrical, or it doesn’t fall into those neat rhythms. “Just stick with it, it’ll iron itself out,” and eventually it does, you know, it just sort of relaxes on its own, it’s like a curl, and you begin to feel comfortable within the form.
JM: Whenever you’re teaching that class, do you feel that your students are naturally more inclined and feel more comfortable with free verse or with form, and do you have any ideas why that might be?
AJ: They’re more comfortable with free verse. Very rarely do you find a student who’s comfortable in fixed forms, because they have a lot of associations with it, like Shakespeare with the sonnet. We did an assignment in my graduate class where I picked sonnets from Shakespeare and said, “Okay, recast this in contemporary language.” And I did the assignment myself, and gosh, it was hard. Yet I didn’t pick familiar ones from the sonnets, I picked ones that I didn’t know, and ones that I felt that they probably wouldn’t have studied, and it was not easy. So I think a lot of students are intimidated by the examples of formal verse because they haven’t seen a whole lot of contemporary examples. So if you study the sonnet, most likely you’re going to study Shakespeare, Milton, or Donne. “Okay, I’m intimidated now,” and it’s intimidating because it’s the language of another era, and they are masters of the form, so it’s a little intimidating. I’ve been collecting examples of contemporary poems in fixed forms for students over the years, and they’ve really appreciated them. It makes them feel, Oh, okay, somebody in my era can use these forms and investigate them fruitfully.
JM: And almost like it allows them the permission to be able to put their own voice and their own lives in that box and reshape it.
AJ: Exactly, exactly. And that you can do both, you can switch back and forth. I have periods where a write a lot of poems in fixed forms, or I have periods where I write a lot of free verse, but the thing that I found was that my line in free verse became cleaner and neater, became more polished after writing a lot in fixed forms; like "Look at that, it’s like my line went on a diet, isn’t that nice?"
JM: Different writers have different philosophical alignments to the “I” in a poem or story. For some, the first-person identity stems from what Louise Glück has called “autobiography and comment, the metronomic alternation of anecdote and response.” For Nietszche, using the first person draws less from an author’s conscious self than from an eternal self that is always in flux. Some treat the first person as a fictionalized “I” that’s capable of seeing more or doing more than they could in their real lives, and still others see it as a forward projection of memory almost, something that allows them to step outside of themselves to consider the world in a new way before returning to it with this new insight.
I see facets of all of these approaches in your poems. Popular culture infuses your work with a chance for Glück’s alternation and response, while the poem “Searching for Melinda’s Magic Moment” features a speaker who wants to find a book just to burn it at the end. And at the same time, many of your poems begin with personal memory, but end up re-envisioning our collective memory. So my question is: what is your alignment to the first-person voice that speaks in your own poetry?
AJ: It’s funny that you mention “Searching,” that poem, because when I wrote it I was convinced that I actually did take that book out of the library, and I had it, and that book existed, and we’ve tried to do searches on that book, and I was convinced that was the title, too, and we can’t find it. So the opportunity in a poem for the “I” to fool its own inventor, it’s huge. I was convinced that I was telling a literal truth about this book and its contents, and now that I’ve actually tried to search for it, I can’t find it. I don’t think it actually exists. But the “I” in the poem is convinced that that book existed and that that book did me damage.
I think the distance between the fictionalized “I” of my particular poems and the person sitting next to you usually isn’t that far. I have written poems in persona, but usually they’re larks, they’re fun things to write. The “I” in my poems is close to the “I” of myself, but of course that’s a fictionalization, because that’s a rationalization that I’m telling myself, so it is a very slippery thing. But I do like beginning with the personalized “I,” that shred of memory, that fragment from my own history, and hoping that it connects to something larger beyond myself, and that there is a collective vision, that it’s just not my personal history.
And it’s interesting that the “I” of my poems, for many of the people who have read my work, seems to transcend race, which, you would think, is something that would stop people. But I’ve had so many women, young women, in particular, come up to me and say, “I really related to that Melinda poem,” or, “I really related to such and such a poem in your book,” and it will be a poem, that on the surface, is specifically about a racialized “I,” an African American “I,” but there must be enough there that there’s a gap that’s bridged, that the “I” becomes a “we”? I hope so, because there are so few occasions for that to happen in our culture.
JM: And that was one of the experiences that I’ve had reading your collection of work. While much of it has to do with different personal memories that came from you, that I’ve had absolutely no experience with, moving through the poem, I actually began to feel that within me, as if it were part of my life and sort of respond to it almost the same way as the speakers in your poems.
AJ: That is my aim as a poet, if there’s some other way, some other medium to accomplish it, I would try. I think, perhaps film, the best films make me think, I feel that way. Even though it’s something that has nothing to do with my life. I think the best films make you feel that way. But there are so few occasions for that sort of connection between people. What’s great about poetry is that you can always go back to that book and re-experience that connection.
JM: Speaking about film and sort of segueing from there, you’ve recently had success publishing your short stories, and one of your creative essays placed first in a contest sponsored by the Peralta Press. You’ve also published five collections of poetry, and as you’ve said, as a student of Kenyon College, you were in the distinction of being in the same sentence as Robert Lowell. How do your experiences as a poet feed into or complicate your approach to your fiction and your creative nonfiction projects?
AJ: For me, fiction is a total lark, because I don’t have to be good at it because no one is expecting me to write a good short story. So I can recast experiences that I have written about in poetry in prose. There’s a lot in my poetry about my father, and several of the stories I’ve written involve a family that is very much like mine, parents from the Caribbean, and girls growing up in what seems to be an urban center. I can have fun with it and not think, Oh, I have to publish this, or have to do anything with it. It’s nice that several of the stories have won contests. And I don’t know if I will ever publish a book of fiction. I certainly don’t want to write a novel, because that seems like such a painful process. But I’d like to write more fiction.
With nonfiction, it’s an investigation that inverts what we were talking about before. Often when I’m writing nonfiction I start with a larger cultural issue and work my way back to my own personal experience. I wrote an essay about my father and male cultural stereotypes from the seventies that were received through television. The impetus for writing the essay was different but similar to the impetus I have for writing poems, just some small detail. It was the day that the actor Carroll O’Connor had died, and I remembered watching All In the Family with my father and how similar my father was to the character of Archie Bunker, even though my father is a black man, or was a black man, and Archie is this white racist. He was almost the flipside. And I thought about all those evenings I’d spent with my father watching shows like All In The Family, The Jeffersons. Those shows are archetypal seventies comedies. I ended up writing that essay about the relationship between these figures, Sanford And Son was another one, and my father. It comes back to being a personal essay, but it starts off with a larger cultural framework. And I’m really interested in that, I am interested in investigating those sorts of things as sort of cultural stereotypes. I think I am a little more engaged, personally engaged, with the nonfiction simply because it seems to dovetail with the poetry in a way that . . . The fiction is fun to write, I think poets tend to fit, I do as a poet, tend to fit poetry in around everything else. But I think you need a specific allotment of time to write short fiction, even. You have to block off time in a way that poets often don’t do, we’re sort of scribbling around the edges of our days, I think. But I would love to write more both nonfiction and fiction, and of course more poetry, because the poetry is always very jealous of everything else. It’s almost like a pose, she’s tapping her foot going, "Are you done with those other genres. Come on, you need to pay attention to me, I am your queen."
But I think I'll keep writing in as many genres as I can. I know I am writing a story when I hear a sentence rather than a line.
JM: One follow-up question I have to that is, I may be making a leap here that wasn’t intended, but you’d spoken about your fiction and how freeing and fun that was, and then also the persona poem. Do you feel more of a kinship with persona to writing fiction than to poetry, or is it not quite so delineated for you?
AJ: The persona poem is such a wonderful thing. I always teach it in classes, and I say to my classes, “Hey this is what you got into this for, telling big fat lies. Here you can do it and get a grade for it.” So I love the persona poem because it allows me to step away from some of those autobiographical poems that some readers do find—frankly—find tiresome, and step into somebody else’s skin, since that is one of the main things we do as writers, to imagine something out of our own experience and make it our own. I’m a very narrative writer and I’ve been often told by my friends who are fiction writers, “I like your poems, they tell stories.” So I am always interested in story, whether it comes in the form of fiction, nonfiction, or poems, the persona poem in particular. It’s just fun to do, it’s fun to try on something that you couldn’t actually try on in real life.
JM: I’d like to end by talking some more directly about your experiences with the Young Writers Workshop, the program for high school students you began at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale in 1999. What experiences did you have as a young writer, positive or negative, attempting to learn more about how to write effectively, and how have those molded your vision for this program?
AJ: When I was in high school, I went to a writers camp, a young writers camp, that was on the campus of Hunter College, which is part of the City University of New York. And it was really great to have that affirmation. It wasn’t a very long writers camp, and I guess one of my teachers recommended me for it. I just loved the attention, I’ve got to be frank, I just loved being a writer, claiming that title. And I wanted to recreate the energy and excitement that I had as a teenager for other teens. It’s a little hard in my area because there’s not a lot of money, it’s not a wealthy area, it’s a part of the country that’s sort of neglected and forgotten. I was writing about this in a poem, I called it “the land that reconstruction forgot.” It’s a southern part of a northern state, so most people don’t even think that it exists.
So I wanted to create something that was similar to a program that’s at Kenyon, which is Young Writers at Kenyon. That goes on for two weeks. I knew that people in my part of the country couldn’t afford two weeks, so ours is four days. It’s structured like, very much like Far Field [The Far Field Retreat for Writers], actually, where we met, where we have workshop twice a day. The students choose between a primary fiction workshop or a poetry workshop. But the greatest ideas have come from the students themselves. A couple of years ago, I started adding one-day classes that our graduate students teach. And it’s sort of a self-contained little class on a subject. These are wonderful because my graduate students get the opportunity to teach something that isn’t freshman composition to people who are excited about language. You can literally see the light bulbs going on above people’s head. We've taught one on the prose poem, or on the short-short, or on haiku, or on things that students don’t often get in high school but can save their lives if they know about it.
Then there are readings, and the students themselves do readings. And the interesting phenomenon that has cropped up about readings . . . the students have a reading at the end on the Saturday that the program closes, and that’s for parents and family. But there are often other readings that go on that the students do for themselves and for the faculty and the counselors, the graduate students who serve as counselors, and those are the most raucous, riotous, funny, fun readings because often they’re reading things that they would censor otherwise. So the theme of the reading is often things that you can’t read in front of your parents. And no one ever reads something that’s pure evil, or I’m gonna burn down the school or something, usually it’s funny in a sexual way or it’s questioning the existence of God. So those are, sometimes they're really angst-ridden poems sometimes, and just about everyone at that age writes poems. Although I have seen students come to the workshop with novels, like this much paper . . . this thick sheaf of paper, like what is that?—Oh, it’s my novel—Wow, are you almost done?—No, I think I’m on chapter twenty—Like, how many chapters are you planning on writing?—Thirty-five, at least. There’s something about that age where the words are almost pouring out of you.
So I really wanted to have . . . it was kind of selfish, because I wanted that energy back, because sometimes even graduate students get it sucked out of them because they’re teaching or they’re working another job or they’re doing so much and they’re students themselves. So I wanted, just maybe for a few days, to have that kind of fun. We try to keep the price as low as possible, so if a student wants to pay for it, himself or herself . . . we’ve had students who have paid for it through their own part-time jobs. We’ve had writers from around the country just give donations for scholarships. So it’s been really nice. This is our seventh summer coming into 2005. I’m trying to make it to that ten, that magical number. It’s been a lot of fun.
JM: Yeah, and it also seems like it really gives students an opportunity that they may not have been able to experience up until that point, where language actually is liberating, or language is the form to express themselves and their uniqueness, and not something to confine them, not a box that they have to fit in and then mold themselves to the shape of that box. They can reshape it and make it what they want.
AJ: Right, exactly, it’s a lot of fun too. We forget sometimes how fun language is, just looking for new words. And some of the students who come to the writers conference, they just sort of soak up literally new words. Like—I’ve never heard that word before, what does it mean?—This is what it means—I’m going to use that from now on. It’s just so great.
It’s a lot of work, but one of the other goals I had was to give my own graduate students experience, and they co-teach those primary workshops I was talking about. A lot of them do a lot of volunteering, or I’ve tried to get them paid over the years, getting them paid more. They are with the students from morning until night, and our rule has been you can stay up as long as you want as long as you’re thinking or doing something having to do with writing.
JM: Well, Allison, thank you so much for talking to us, it’s been great seeing you.
AJ: Always a pleasure to see you.